April 16th, 2013 | By Jason Hillier | Filed in Client Reports
By Michelle Valberg
Erik was from Austria. Robert and Kendra were from Hong Kong. Micki and Chuck were from LA, Joanne was Australian and Pat was a friend from Ottawa. Most of us had never met before, but we greeted each other like adventurers with a common goal: combing the western edge of Hudson Bay for mother polar bears and their months-old cubs. Stowing our gear and chatting excitedly, we boarded the VIA train in Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Chesnaye, 60 kilometres south. It was a slow ride south through the boreal forest, but with every kilometer clicking past, our anticipation grew. The spring 2013 Polar Bear Mother and Newborn Cub Photo Safari with Arctic Kingdom was about to begin.
Two hours later, we rolled to a stop in Chesnaye. Very late on a very cold March night when the temperature hovered at -30C, we stepped off the train onto the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.
2 hour train ride from Churchill to the Lodge
There, the Lodge staff met and whisked us into their specially-designed Arctic vehicles - vans with special tracks instead of wheels. A quick 30-minute drive brought us to our home for the next seven nights. Ten adventurers were already at the lodge and they were buzzing with elation. That day, they’d experienced an amazing opportunity to capture, on camera, a polar bear and her cubs. Needless to say, our excitement and their stories kept us up until after midnight.
Day 1 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Our group from all corners of the globe - from Hong Kong, Australia, USA, Canada and the UK - heading out in the tracked van in search of mother and cubs
At 9am the next morning, after a chef-made breakfast, we boarded the specially-equipped van. Parkas on, photo equipment at the ready, we crossed our fingers and toes in the hopes that we would see a mother and her cubs close to their den.
Just twenty minutes later. “There they are!” shouted our guide, pointing to a Momma bear feeding her cubs. From a respectful distance, we observed the tender interplay of nature and nurture. Once she was done, our guides positioned the vehicles and we clambered to get all our gear on and our photo equipment ready.
Tracked vehicles seem to watch over the tripods set up close to mother and cubs bear den
Stepping outside, the cold took our breath away. And yet…this is what we had come so far to see. We stood together, slightly unsure of what would happen. Even so, in that moment I thought, how lucky am I to experience this!
Waiting for mother and cubs to appear...any second now....
Lined up, our fingers on camera buttons, we watched, took photos and observed. The cubs tumbled over each other joyfully, with their mother nearby.
And then, the unexpected happened. Momma bear awoke from her rest, stretched, rolled onto her belly, sat up and sniffed the air in our direction. Slowly, she walked towards us. Our guides were immediately on alert and started their snowmobiles. She wasn’t aggressive in her approach—but she was curious.
Once the bears got too close, the guides moved in and gently suggested they head in another direction. The only sound over our overawed, pounding hearts was the quick click-click-click of our camera shutters as we captured each movement.
Perhaps convinced we meant no harm, Momma bear and her cubs went back towards their den to rest. As they slept, we chatted, moved in and out of the vans and tried to keep warm—the temperature by then was around -40C (-55 with the wind chill). And we marveled. On our first day, we had spent 10 hours watching this family. They had approached us four times, we had magic light and an all-around eventful day. We weren’t sure how any other day would compare.
Day 2 at the Newborn Polar Bear Cub Lodge
The next day, we searched fruitlessly for the family…but eventually, our guides located them later in the day. The babies played, slept and never strayed far from their mother’s side. They were adorable, and yet we had to remind ourselves that one day, they too would become the most fearsome predators in the Arctic.
Day 3 at the Newborn Cubs Lodge
The wind howled across the tundra, forcing the little family to hunker down. Even so, the light and setting were absolutely stunning. Momma bear put her face into the snow to sleep while the cubs played with each other. In between sniffing around and nosing each other, they crawled all over their mother, giving us unbelievable photographic opportunities. Once again, they approached us with interest.
Day 4 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
After such excellent luck, it came as no surprise that it ran out by the fourth day of shooting. Our guides had spotted three families, but they were deep in the park and the trek would have been too treacherous to make in our vans. We had beautiful light and spent a few hours sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for word from our guides.
But the day wasn’t a total loss: An extraordinary sunset morphed into a mesmerizing, noble display of northern lights early in the night. We definitely had nothing to complain about.
Day 5 at the Newborn Polar Bear Lodge
There are days in the North when it feels like you’re on a movie set. The light is gorgeous, the landscape was Hollywood perfect and the players all know their parts well.
The day dawned cold and windy, but a new mother and her very tiny, very new cubs fresh from the den emerged to explore the world around them. Everywhere Momma bear went, they followed. If she stopped to sniff the air, they stopped, too.
Polar bears use the small hilly areas to make their dens and there, we watched them sleep most of the day. Anytime we spotted movement, we would run to our cameras. It wasn’t the best day for shooting—the wind was strong and blew snow straight at us. But I don’t think any of us minded.
Day 6 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Could anything top the week we had experienced? In the Arctic, nothing is a sure thing. There are too many variables, too much can change in a heartbeat. And yet, in many ways, our penultimate day at Wapusk was the best. Under the biggest tree for kilometers, our guides found the family. It was another beautiful background. After hours of sleeping, Momma Bear got up and walked in our direction with her cubs. Our guides warned her with their snowmobiles. She walked back to the tree and we watched her try to feed her cub. She took her big front paw and gently nudged him towards her. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes about how, regardless of species, our desire to both protect and feel safe. We want to feel loved. We want to be nourished.
At the end of the day, we had the unparalleled luck to have all three polar bears - mother with her two cubs - walked right past us. Trigger-happy and filled with excitement, we watched her walk away with her cubs close behind her. It was a fitting farewell and I was overcome. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed. I felt so blessed. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for so long. The Polar Bear Mother and Cubs Photo Safari trip had fulfilled my dreams.
The return back to Churchill was uneventful. Upon arriving on a bright, sunny day a bit warmer than what we’d experienced in Wapusk we had a dog sled ride and enjoyed the afternoon. But our hearts and minds were far away with the mother and newborn cubs that were back in Wapusk National Park.
ABOUT MICHELLE VALBERG
This was Michelle Valberg's first trip (of many) as an expedition leader with Arctic Kingdom.
Michelle Valberg is a globally recognized and celebrated photographer, whose quest to capture the beautiful and unique on camera has taken her to all corners of the world.
Valberg’s stunning, and at times haunting photographs are highly sought after by art collectors globally, and have been showcased in various exhibits and features across North America. In 2011, Valberg’s work was the subject of a critically acclaimed 3-month solo exhibition at the esteemed Canadian Museum of Nature.